Journalists in Egypt will face severe penalties if they to do not limit themselves to official sources in their coverage of armed attacks and bombings by rebel groups, under a bill unveiled yesterday that will impose drastic new curbs on freedom of information, if adopted.
As a result of the critical security situation in the Sinai Peninsula, any journalist citing a non-military source will face the possibility of imprisonment, deportation or house arrest. Journalists covering attacks and bombings will even be exposed to criminal proceedings for failing to cite official death tolls. This will happen if, as expected, President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi approves the new terrorism law in the next few days. Although Egypt’s prisons are already packed with unjustly detained journalists, the regime is cracking down more than ever on media freedom, claiming that the country must be protected from “false reports” on security grounds. “If adopted, this law will inevitably impose self-censorship on journalists who are already harassed on spurious grounds whenever their reporting reflects badly on the authorities,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Middle East and Maghreb desk. “The regime is suppressing too many fundamental freedoms in the name of combatting terrorism, and this bill violates the guarantees enshrined in the January 2014 constitution. The very ability of journalists to work properly is threatened because they are meant to quote different sources and thereby promote a public debate. We ask the government to reconsider this bill and to modify the provisions affecting the media.” Under article 33 of the bill, publishing false information about terrorist operations that contradicts official communiqués will be punishable by up to two years in prison. Articles 26, 27, 29 and 37 are also dangerous because of the vagueness of their wording. Those who publish information that even indirectly incites violence or the preparation of terrorist acts designed to hurt the security forces or involving terrorist actions in Egypt or abroad will also face the possibility of imprisonment. Even covering terrorist trials without permission will be punishable by a fine. The bill, which has been condemned by the Egyptian journalists union, was unveiled in the aftermath of a series of deadly attacks against Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula on 1 July that were claimed by Islamic State. The Egyptian media had conflicting figures for the death toll, which was 21 according to an army spokesman. The conflicting reports undermined the country’s morale, justice minister Ahmed Al-Zind said. President Sisi had promised tough legislation after a car bomb killed prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat on 29 June. Egypt is one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel, with at least ten journalists currently detained just for doing their job to report the news. Freedom of information has declined sharply since Sisi took power. Egypt is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.